Looking back: hurricanes and a determined science team

The photo above is a snapshot from Google Earth on September 12, close to the time that we were originally scheduled to begin seafloor operations at the Lost City. Because hurricanes Joyce and Helene were hovering over Lost City for a few days, blocking our access, we weren’t able to begin seafloor operations until September 16. Our first few days setting out from Woods Hole were also pretty rocky thanks to hurricane Florence. We also had some impressive swells even on clear days thanks to hurricane Isaac. There were some very sick people on the R/V Atlantis. (Thanks to Antony Adler for the Google Earth screenshot).

But everyone survived, as evidenced by the photo of smiling scientists below. After the hurricanes parted and our investigations at the Lost City began, this group of people became a highly efficient, interdisciplinary team of researchers.

For the six days of seafloor time we had during this expedition, the R/V Atlantis was humming 24 hours a day with an impressive array of scientific activities including but not limited to: sample processing and archiving, chemistry measurements, microbiology experiments,  sensor data collection, seafloor mapping, video editing, maintenance of a long list of instruments, and playing table tennis. Of course, all of this was done at the same time as operating ROV Jason on the seafloor. Sometimes people may have even slept a few hours.

Depths of Exploration

Typical starry night view from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Guest post by Osama Alian:

Nothing really prepares you for the scale that is the undertaking of an ocean expedition, or the feelings that may be inevitable for those who’ve admired the idea of exploration. Or at its simplest, traveling beyond the known. I can speak about the poetry of going to sea, the isolation of our study site, the camaraderie that is necessary to overcome longing for the loved ones on shore, the anxiety that comes with doing something new under trying circumstances. Those sentiments have been described countless times by thinkers and writers and scientists more articulate. However, I choose one very poignant moment to recall, that strikes me deep into a contemplation new to me.

The third night at the Lost City, like many other nights on this expedition, we shared the bow of the Atlantis with the stars. Between breaks of passing clouds and rain showers, a Milky Way of such brightness showed with one, strange and unfamiliar star moving across the sky. It wasn’t an airplane and it definitely wasn’t a shooting star. A few moments later we realized it was the International Space Station, with humans living and working aboard moving directly over us before it faded into its own, magnificent high-altitude sunset part way across the sky. Our brethren in exploration.

From the Earth to the Moon, the Apollo astronauts travelled four days at speeds unimagined beyond the power of Gods of myth. From Woods Hole, Massachusetts to the Lost City, we transited nearly nine days through hurricanes and tropical storms with barely a soul in sight. At our study site, Jason, our robot sub, descended to 800 meters below the sea, withstanding pressures of 1,200 pounds per square inch. The International Space Station, orbiting at 17,000 kilometers an hour is kept at an Earth-like 14 pounds per square inch.

From the Earth to beyond, we are a tribe of explorers, seeking. We do those things, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.

Arecibo Observatory

The Lost City represents more than an elusive scientific mystery to be teased apart. For us, for me, it’s the place that gives me a naïve assurance that this universe of ours is built on the strange and beautiful. We seek answers here to understand where life could be beyond our blue marble world. We strive to understand planetary phenomena here so that we may know our place in the universe and ensure a hope that maybe, just maybe between the vast emptiness we are truly not alone.

Our expedition concluded with arrival in Puerto Rico, but more poetically our final day before dispersing across our little world back to our academic homes was a visit to the Arecibo Radio Observatory. It was another strange but familiar moment, the scale of human ingenuity placed against the scale of an infinite universe, calling us. It may have seemed like an epilogue to our journey, but the reality of our work means that this is just the beginning. A prologue. From the depths of the ocean to the depths of space, how far will we reach into the unknown?

Osama Alian is a Ph.D. student in Matt Schrenk’s laboratory at Michigan State University. Twitter: @osamaalien. Instagram: osamaalien.

The ocean at night from the R/V Atlantis.

Is Lost City Unique?

Are there other places like the Lost City hydrothermal field? This is one of the most common questions we are asked about the Lost City. It can be answered in a variety of ways. One answer is that the geochemical processes such as serpentinization that produced Lost City are widespread on the seafloor. Many hydrothermal systems in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere are influenced by serpentinization and associated reactions. The Lost City is an extreme (or perhaps ‘pure’) example of something that happens all over the ocean to a lesser degree. Therefore, studying the Lost City hydrothermal field helps us to understand a globally distributed natural phenomenon.

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The HOG Sampler

One of the major outcomes of this expedition has been the success of the HOG sampler. The large volume sampler for Hydrothermal Organic Geochemistry was designed and built by Chief Scientist Susan Lang and her lab at the University of South Carolina. It was the main workhorse of this expedition, collecting large volumes of hydrothermal fluids (we use the word “fluid” to describe the water, minerals, and gases coming out of hydrothermal vents) from Lost City chimneys that we will use to address our primary research questions. Susan and her team have been designing, building, and testing the HOG sampler for the past two years, and the Lost City 2018 expedition was the maiden voyage of the fully functional sampler. The fact that the HOG performed so well on its first big test is a testament to the Lang lab’s preparation and attention to detail, particularly by Bryan Benitez-Nelson who was meticulous in everything from choosing fittings, calculating how many bottles would fit in a given space, and designing bench tests. The HOG’s sturdy build is thanks to Allen Frye in the UofSC machine shop, who translated pen and paper sketches into elegant solutions.

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Bringing to a close

Our last dive at Lost City with ROV Jason was yesterday because we have been chased away from the area by another hurricane. Even though our days at Lost City were cut down from an originally funded 12 days to 6 days, we were still successful in achieving our core scientific goals. We were able to investigate and sample the key features of Lost City that are most important to our research questions, and we can’t wait to get home and analyze our samples.

This is the first time we have been to Lost City since 2005, and we waited three years for both the R/V Atlantis and ROV Jason to be available after the project was funded. So everyone, including the ROV Jason team and the ship’s crew, worked around the clock to maximize the scientific value of our few days at Lost City. It goes without saying, but we couldn’t have done it without them. For example, yesterday the Jason team recovered, prepped, and launched Jason again in under two hours so that we could get in one last dive before the hurricane arrived. Every single one of the 21 scientists on board worked themselves to their physical limits in order to cram 12 days of work into 6. It’s a great feeling to know everyone around you is completely committed to doing whatever they possibly can to contribute to the scientific mission. We’ll report more on our scientific activities for the past week, but for now, here is a quick summary of how we spent our time.

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Finally!

After a whole week of being chased around the Atlantic Ocean by hurricanes, the weather finally cleared over the weekend and gave us an opportunity to explore the Lost City hydrothermal field. This week of avoiding hurricanes came after many years of scheduling delays and writing proposals. To be honest, I sometimes wondered to myself whether this project was really worth all of this work and stress. But on Sunday morning, when we finally dived at Lost City and saw scenes like the one above, it all seemed totally worth it. This is why all the scientists, engineers, and ship crew are out here.

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Testing and Waiting

We are halfway to Lost City now, but slowing our approach because Hurricane Helene is on track to meet us there. While politely waiting for Helene to leave the area, we needed to find something to do, so we conducted tests and optimized our lab protocols. Because scientists are always happy to run tests and optimize protocols. Yesterday we stopped to do a test dive with ROV Jason, to make sure all of our equipment is working properly in the water. There were a few glitches, as usual, which should be easily solved. Today we collected samples of “background” seawater using Niskin bottles on a CTD rosette. We will use these samples to practice our lab protocols and to compare to the Lost City samples as control samples.

Hopefully, the weather will allow us to apply these optimized equipment and protocols at Lost City soon. Stay tuned!

 

Why are we out here?

Now that we are in the open sea, out of sight of land, and beyond range of easy communication with our friends and family, it seems like a good time to discuss why we are out here. Why are we spending a whole month away from our loved ones and normal lives? Why are we spending so much of our time (and public funds) in the middle of the ocean taking samples of the seafloor? My two-year old daughter is going to do a hundred little things for the first time while I’m out here on this ship getting very seasick – why would I do that?

The short answer is the thrill of discovery. This expedition is so exciting to us because of the very good chance that we might be able to see things that nobody in the history of the world has ever seen before. Like what? We don’t know! And that’s the exciting part. The Lost City was discovered in exactly this way: a group of scientists (many of whom are involved in our current expedition) in 2000 were pursuing their scientific interests by exploring the geology of the Atlantis Massif (the underwater mountain on which Lost City is perched) and accidentally discovered this amazing natural wonder that was directly related to those scientific interests and yet completely unexpected.

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Underway

We departed Woods Hole today, and are now on our way to Lost City. The transit will be approximately 5 days because Lost City is on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the underwater mountain chain that bisects the Atlantic Ocean into its western and eastern halves. Check out the map on the home page.